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The History of Mel Brooks' World
November 14, 2012  | By Eric Gould  | 1 comment

Once, while being interviewed about The Two Thousand Year Man routine, Carl Reiner, who played the straight man to Mel Brooks' ancient character, said, "The comedy mind in panic is the best thing you can have. Because a really great comedy mind in panic will find a way out. He's gotta live. He's not gonna die. Put his back up against the wall, he'll come up with something."

Reiner was discussing the celebrated The Two Thousand Year Man comedy skits, but may as well have been summarizing the foundation of Brooks' success.

It's that sense of risk and ingenuity in his improv and scripted work that underlies the best of Brooks' talent. He hangs the tightrope and then walks out on it himself, the audience following the whole way. The history of Brooks' method is well documented and discussed in a new chronicle of his career, entitled The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection of Unhinged Comedy, being released this week from Shout Factory.

This new Mel Brooks collection is neither an anthology nor a complete collection of his works. Rather, it is a vital companion guide to a life's work, assembling interviews, commentary, songs, TV pilots, and favorite movie scenes by one of the most prolific comedy writers and directors of the 20th century.

With hours of viewable material, plus essays and rare photos in the book-bound release, there's plenty of gold to be mined in The Incredible Mel Brooks. So much, in fact, that there's far too much to mention here. One wonderful nugget is Brooks' 1976 appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, where he offered a very short impression of Frank Sinatra singing "America The Beautiful," suavely botching and elaborating bits of lyrics as Sinatra was known to do.

Another can be found in the recent 2012 PBS documentary, Excavating The Two Thousand Year Old Man. In one old clip, Brooks' character calls Paul Revere an anti-semite for hollering, "The Yiddish are coming!" Yet another clip captures the joke he tells in an edited version of The David Susskind Show. In that 1970 episode, called "How To Be A Jewish Son," Brooks talks about introducing his new girlfriend, film actress Anne Bancroft (a Catholic), to his mother, who remarked, "sit down, have a piece of fruit, I'll be in the kitchen — my head will be in the oven."

There is a lot of commentary on The Incredible Mel Brooks, much of it provided by Brooks himself, who introduces clips with stories and remembrances behind them. For Young Frankenstein, it is a surprise to learn that Brooks hated the idea of the young doctor (Gene Wilder, center, with Teri Garr and Marty Feldman) doing the song and dance routine with the monster (Peter Boyle) to the tune of "Puttin' on the Ritz." It was Wilder's idea, and after he went back to the studio to put up more money to film it, Brooks consented, with the agreement he could cut it if he didn't like it. As one of the funniest and most memorable scenes from that milestone comedy, you wonder why there was any reservation.

Plenty of time and space is devoted to his early years writing for the two Sid Caesar variety shows in the 1950s — Your Show of Shows and Caesar's Hour. It's well known that the writers' room for those shows included Brooks, Neil Simon and Larry Gelbert, and later, for the Caesar specials, Woody Allen. It's worth noting — and a little surprising when watching the old black and white clips — that the Caesar shows, done live in front of a studio audience, have all the wit and quickness of any contemporary episode of Saturday Night Live.

The collection includes several interviews with Brooks, including the 60 Minutes piece done with Mike Wallace in 2001, just before the Broadway premiere of The Producers, the musical based on his Academy Award-winning 1968 film of the same title. The Wallace interview gets Brooks discussing his mockery of Hitler and the Nazi regime not only in The Producers, but in other works. (There are clips of the other Hitler pieces, including one from the 1978 comedy special Peeping Times, below, left.)

He always felt he had to match the level of mockery to the horror of history. He tells Wallace, "There was only one way to bring him down — that was through ridicule. … It's been one of my life-long jobs to make the world laugh at Hitler."

But maybe the most telling interview is his 1984 appearance on the BBC program Wogan, where he is well matched —and maybe at times verbally outplayed — by Terry (now Sir Terry) Wogan. Wogan, who's obviously a very quick wit, genteelly spars with Brooks, and maybe frustrates the man who is used to outmaneuvering his interviewers, not to mention being the center of attention.

We also learn, through interviews done especially for the DVD release, that the success of Blazing Saddles freed Brooks from financial worry, and, surprisingly, that Spaceballs was hands down his biggest moneymaker.

Maybe the one fault in the collection here is the omission of the sly Larry David appropriation of The Producers plot line into the fourth season of David's HBO comedy, Curb Your Enthusiasm, in 2004, when Brooks and Bancroft appeared in the season finale. It was an unusually smart understanding of Brooks' work, and it duped a national audience right up to the end. It would have been interesting to hear Brooks elaborate a little more on that media event beyond what he said exclusively to TVWW's David Bianculli in 2011.

There are hours and hours of humor and insight on The Incredible Mel Brooks, both for long-time devotees and for younger people just discovering his six decades of work. (The stake-through-the-heart scene with Steven Weber in Dracula: Dead and Loving It is particularly outrageous and unexpected.) There is literally something for everyone here from the winner of what 30 Rock jokes as the EGOT — one of only 11 others to have ever won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony.

This collection of Brooks' personal thoughts and clips of some of his best work is a vital and necessary document of television's early humor, and to be even more precise, a history of TV's Jewish humor. And it stands as even more valuable when you consider there might not be such similar forthcoming collections of the work of the other Jewish TV greats, such as Robert Klein, Don Rickles or Alan King.

But for now, we have the whole back story of Mel Brooks — and what is that, chopped liver??

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Noel Holston
Splendid piece, Eric. Brooks has had an amazing creative career, but I have to tell you, the funniest thing I ever saw him do -- and that includes his bits with Reiner and "Young Frankenstein" -- was the mass interview with TV critics many years ago for his Robin Hood spoof "When Things Were Rotten." Brooks' quickness was astonishing. He ran with and riffed on every question. We laughed til we hurt. And when it was over and we transcribed our tapes, it became sadly evident that it was a lousy interview. His answers were all jokes, and they didn't translate to print very well. You had to have been there. Too bad ABC didn't videotape the session. It would a treasure.
Nov 14, 2012   |  Reply
Noel - Thanks, much. I'll continue to date myself – as a kid, I never missed an episode from the one season of "When Things Were Rotten". So, with that and "Get Smart" Mel was playing very well to the children in the room.

And, yes – there is funny, then there is funny writing, and the two are very far apart. Always much more difficult to be funny in print! –EG
Nov 14, 2012
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